My latest column
g.maclennan at qut.edu.au
Tue Feb 12 14:26:50 MST 2002
I do hope that this is not too long for the list, but as it deals with the
refugee issue in Australia it may be of interest.
Flagging in the Bin
In the eighties the postmodernists, who so dominated the universities,
concentrated their fire and ire on the notion of the truth. There was no
truth according to the pomos - only different versions of events. They
also moved on to attack photography and documentary film as not being able
to represent reality in any way; partly because, as they argued, there was
no reality. It is interesting to note that the academics that proclaimed
the end of reality, managed somehow to get promoted in that very same
But of course you need to be an academic with tenure to be able to deny the
existence of reality. (Perhaps that is one of the main reasons why tenure
has been attacked and almost destroyed.) Nevertheless despite reservations
within the academy we can be sure there is a reality. I apologise to my
non-academic readers for making that statement. I know you will not be
impressed even if I assure you that there is still at least one university
department in Brisbane where to say there is a reality would be to damage
one's career almost permanently.
But the new year has made me bold. I am prepared to risk all and affirm
that there is a reality and also photographs and documentary films can
capture that reality and tell us the truth of it. Indeed sometimes a
photograph can convey the essence of an era. In my youth the photograph of
the murder of the Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet Offensive was one such
photograph. I am also prepared to say that the truth of the present
conjuncture has been captured by the official photographs released by the
American Army showing soldiers standing over chained, masked, gloved and
hooded Al Qa'ida prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Cuba.
I wish to emphasise that these are official photographs released by the
Pentagon. Just as the Nazis faithfully and proudly recorded much of their
barbaric treatment of the Jews, just so the bastion of the Free World is
anxious to let us know how they treat human beings that have defied them in
some way. The French have a saying "pour encourager les autres" to describe
reprisals taken against opponents of authority, and when we look at these
photos in the press we can be sure that America is truly encouraging the
whole world. The photographs are saying to us, "Oppose America and this is
what you will get".
The prisoners wear goggles, which are taped over, and gloves and ear muffs
so that they can receive no stimuli from outside. They can hear, see and
feel nothing. The trick is an old one. It is called sensory
deprivation. They idea is to starve the prisoner of the data she needs to
make sense of what is happening. The good old British pioneered it in
Northern Ireland against the Catholics in 1971. Mind you they did find out
that, as a torture, sensory deprivation was pretty useless because it
usually drove the prisoner insane and made the subsequent getting of
information almost impossible. Nothing daunted however God Old Uncle Sam
is at it again. It is probable you see that our American allies, the
leaders of the Free World, are not seeking information but merely want to
drive the Al Qa'ida mad.
But I want to stress here that we need to go beyond being indignant about
these photographs and the torture they so proudly and boastfully
record. We must understand that in a very real sense they mark the growth
of unfreedom around the world. They also seek to legitimate that same
unfreedom. During the American civil War, Marx said that the abolition of
slavery in the Southern States was in the interest of the workers of the
North because it was impossible for workers to be free in the North while
workers were enslaved in another part of the country. Similarly you and I
cannot be free while the Greatest Power, the world has ever seen, feels it
can parade openly its brutality and savagery towards those who oppose it.
The Geneva Convention states that no prisoner of war can be ill treated, or
humiliated. Yet in Guantanamo Bay the prisoners sit in cages open to the
elements under the full glare of spotlights throughout the night. Among
them is an Australian, David Hicks; still our government supports fully the
cruel and inhumane treatment that is being meted out to him.
Moreover the American argument that the people they hold in cages are not
prisoners of war is spurious. Because if they are prisoners of war then
they are criminals and they still have rights under the Sixth
Amendment. These include access to lawyers and the right to a trial.
The great mystic poet William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence of how
cruelty to animals and humans put all heaven in a rage. Of animals he wrote
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.
A dove-house fill'd with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starv'd at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the state
Of humans he wrote
Every tear from every eye
Becomes a babe in Eternity;
That is caught by Females bright,
And return'd to its own delight
The babe that weeps the rod beneath
Writes revenge in realms of death.
The beggar's rags, fluttering in air,
Does to rags the heavens tear.
I think of these lines when I look at the pictures of the American Military
doing their thing in Guantanamo Bay. I also think of them when I read of
refugee children being held in detention in this country and of refugees
going mad in their despair and mutilating themselves in our very own
detention centres right here in the Lucky Country. We have imprisoned
children and families with children. We have driven them to despair and
madness and then we have blamed them for despairing and going mad.
Ah, but to talk or write like this in these times in Australia is
pointless. It is simply of no use at all. The election showed where this
country stood. When Afghani refugees turned up near our shores we sent the
army against them and in the election we displayed our gratitude to the
Government by returning them with an increased majority.
Do Australians care about refugees who fled from tyranny and war and misery
to seek a better life in this land? Of course not, mate. You've got to be
joking. The imprisoning of the refugee children is popular in this nation.
I used to look at Phil Ruddock and think that he was cruel, pitiless and
heartless because of the inhumane treatment of the refugees. He is all
these things and more, but now I realise that he is also the average
Australian. Ruddock's meanness is typical of the meanness of this
so-called Great Nation.
But why was I so surprised to find this out from the public opinion polls
and the election? After all this is Australia, you know, mate, where for
decades Australian governments practised the genocidal kidnapping of
Aboriginal children to breed out the entire Aboriginal race. Locking up
refugees and being cruel to them is a vote winner for the government. The
refugees are "wogs" aren't they? Who cares if they are going mad? What
really matters is that Australia has started winning at the cricket,
mate. Get it right.
Now we are gallantly boarding ships in the Gulf for the Americans to ensure
that the sanctions continue to kill thousands and thousands of Iraqi
children. We are also gallantly handing over prisoners to be
"interrogated". And the next time Americans head off to invade and bomb and
slaughter and torture, gallant Australia will be there, my boys. Yes
Australia will be there! Whenever Empire needs a few uppity peasants to be
taught a lesson, we will do our bit, mate. Yes you can be certain that
Labor and Liberal will be "shoulder to shoulder" in their mutual
determination to follow America into the everlasting war that President
Bush has promised us all. She'll be right, very right.
We will also have welcome home parades for our heroes who will have fought
so gallantly for the Free World against the "rag-heads" and the "wogs".
Medals will be handed out and the RSL and the politicians will talk proudly
of the Anzac spirit being alive and well. The veterans will be marching and
parading for most of this century. Unborn generations of Australians will
read about these heroes in their schoolbooks. They will be taught that
they fought for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines, etc
etc. The Courier Mail will tell the children of tomorrow how they must be
grateful for the Veterans. The children will be given flags to wave and
told to cheer and they will wave those flags and they will cheer and cheer
So why fight such a tide, such a tsunami? Far better to surf the wave of
patriotism. Come my friends t'is not too late to join the madding
crowd. So then - it is Bravo for the Free World! God Bless America, the
land that I love! All the way with the USA! Three cheers for their
ever-loyal Australian supporters! Advance Australia Fair! Aussie - Aussie
- Aussie - Oi! Oi! Oi! (Or should that be "Oink! Oink! Oink!"?).
2. About three years ago I borrowed from my older son Laughing Lost in the
Mountains: Selected poems of Wang Wei. I intended to go through a few of
them in my Sunday reading group and then return them. Three years later we
still have not given back the book. We feel guilty about it but the reason
for our dereliction of duty is that we have grown to love the poetry of the
great Chinese artist and poet and try to finish off every reading session
with one or two of his poems. Wang Wei (699-761 CE) was both an artist and
a poet and the poems reflect his acute visual sense. A Buddhist he
emphasises the quiet joys of seclusion and union with nature. Our absolute
favourite is the following mysterious piece.
About Old Age, in Answer to a Poem by Sub-Prefect Zhang
In old age I ask only for peace
And do not care about things of the world.
I have found no good way to live
And brood about getting lost in my old forests.
The wind blowing in the pines loosens my belt.
The mountain moon is my lamp while I tinkle my lute
How do you succeed or fail in life?
A fisherman's song is deep in the river.
The opening lines are clear in their celebration of the life of the hermit
who rejects the world and dreams about union with nature or the achievement
of subject -object identity. But what does the reply to the question about
how to succeed in life mean? Why the fisherman's song? There is presumably
a reference here to a classic Chinese poem where the fisherman contrasts
the cleanliness of the river with the filth of the world. However I prefer
to think of these lines as meaning that Zhang has asked the wrong
question. We are not here to "succeed" in life. What we call success is
all too clearly failure. We must seek a spiritual enlightenment as well as
the rational enlightenment that has brought us material progress. For Wang
Wei the path to this spiritual enlightenment lies through communion with
nature in a life of aesthetic fullness as well as ascetic simplicity.
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